1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Coleridge" The Champion (29 March 1814) 102-03.



"For long and early habits of exerting my intellect in metrical composition, have not so enslaved me, but that for some years I have felt, and deeply felt, that the Poet's high function were not my proper assignment." The Friend, by Mr. Coleridge, No. 1.

After such a declaration, voluntarily made, it may seem uncandid to bring the poems of this gentleman to the ordeal of criticism: but the self denying deprecations of authors, and especially of such delicately-coy authors as Mr. Coleridge, must never be interpreted in their literal meaning. That this passage was never intended to be construed into common terms, is evident from the contents of the volume of which it is one of the earliest paragraphs. In that work he is perpetually coming before the readers, displaying the pretensions, and exercising the functions of a poet, for which he had affectedly pronounced himself unfit. His depreciation, therefore, of his own poetical powers, must be considered as one of those amiable, but rather fantastic artifices, with which a enchanting singer sometimes prefaces her song, at once to excite interest, and to subdue by astonishment.

If it really be his opinion, that he is merely an intruder into the haunts of the Muses, and, what is worse, a shameless intruder, because perfectly conscious of his rudeness, — in this case he must be numbered among those numerous blunderers, who totally mistake their real powers, and, abandoning their strongest holds, fly for refuge to their weakest and best sheltered places. It is, indeed, very difficult to ascertain exactly what we should understand from the quoted sentence. It is very possible, that, measuring himself by some highly-exalted standard, he may feel that he does not belong to the same class as Shakspeare or Milton: it is possible that, comparing his own elaborate efforts with the facile majesty of his friend Wordsworth, he may for the time experience a humiliating consciousness of his inferiority; but to suppose that the man whose every metaphor and illustration is a poetic image, whose metaphysics are led through the flowers of fancy, instead of the intricacies of reason, and whose diction aims at all the gorgeous array and musical pomp of the most stately verse, — that such a man should belief himself utterly incapable of poetry, is a paradox only to be allowed by those who will believe, that the mind can be so thoroughly purged of self-love, as to hold it impossible to attain any eminence in the pursuit to which it dedicates all its affections, and all its energies.

But whatever may be the real opinion of Mr. Coleridge, I must for myself declare, that though I hold in high admiration his extensive knowledge, his profound thinking, and the comprehensive range of his intellect, yet I conceive he has shewn little claim to the gratitude of his contemporaries or of posterity, except by his poems. His prose essays are so full of morbid vanity, — of independent boldness in the thinking, and the most shrinking horror lest his thoughts should offend the established orders, — of grand views of general truth, and the most pusillanimous meanness to the application of it, that the mind, though interested with such striking peculiarities, turns with strong dislike from a picture, made up of such harsh and unharmonizing contrasts. His poems are very different: they have indeed enough of vanity, and enough of affectation, but who cares for such errors when listening to the enchantments of a rich and graceful imagination; or of a metrical music, which reminds one sometimes of the softness of the flute, — sometimes of the full swelling tones of the organ? His mind has evidently been, from the earliest youth, devoted to those peculiar studies which form the poet, while the intensity of his feeling, and the depth of his understanding, seem to mark him out as fitted to fill one of the highest seats of that Parnassus which he pretends to desert. There can be no doubt, that if he would seriously apply his powers to a great poem, he would rise to an immeasurable height above his friend Southey, in all whose works, there is scarcely one paragraph which indicates deep feeling, and not one which is distinguished for profound reflection. In some of the few poems which he has published, Mr. Coleridge has drawn such tenderly-pleasing scenes of domestic love, as might have refreshed even the bowers of Paradise: in others, there is an indignant strain of moral remonstrance against tyranny and vice, which might appal the heart, though cased in a hundred folds of the dullest apathy.

Yet these are powers which Mr. Coleridge holds worthless: the praise of a poet, which satisfied the ambition of Homer or Milton is beneath his views: he must forsooth become a metaphysician, and shew how easy it is for the clearest sighted man to become blind, when he goes into an atmosphere to which his organs of vision are not accustomed. It appears, that having occasion to go into Germany, he there became enamoured, as he ought to have been, of Schiller, and Goethe, and Wieland, and even of Klopstock: and one fine specimen he has given us both of his fondness and of his taste, in his noble translation of Schiller's noble play, on the fortunes and death of Wallenstein. But this was not enough: like Dr. Faustus, his great prototype in curiosity and audacity of research, he looked about for fresh objects for the exercise of his intellect, and most unluckily was, all at once, spell-bound, by the incomprehensible grandeur of the philosophy of Kant. From that time he has never been disenchanted: he has ever since affected to refine wisdom into obscurity, and to struggle with subjects which he scarcely has skill enough to touch. This does not arise from want of mental power, but of science: — he has the strength of a giant, but he has not any knowledge of the weapon with which he is foolish enough to choose to combat. Hence proceeds the great confusion in his ideas, and consequently in his language; nor is he unaware of this defect; but he ascribes it to any cause rather than the right one. He insinuates that the expressions of deep feeling must ever be obscure to a general reader. Now this seems to me a misapprehension: he confounds that which is obscure with that which is not obvious; and yet, no two things can be more separate in their nature. A profound remark may be entirely new, and yet every mind shall at once understand it and allow its propriety: an obscure idea is one of which the mind cannot comprehend the form, nor, with all its exertions, recognize the naturalness. Had Mr. Coleridge, at the time when he offered such an excuse for his want of perspicuity, thought a little about his old favourites, Bacon and Milton, and Jeremy Taylor, he would at once have seen the fallacy of his position. These men all thought deeply and felt keenly, yet their ideas are as clear as those of the shallowest writers: their page is sometimes encumbered with the gorgeousness of their diction, or the exuberance of their images, but their meaning is always accessible to the commonest apprehension: and, if Mr. Coleridge would imitate those great masters, and treat only of such subjects as he understands, he would not only be as intelligible as they are, but almost as eloquent. He has, indeed, many points of resemblance with those heroes of our literature: great sensibility, a mind stored with images, and a manly spirit of enterprize which leads him to dive into the abyss of his subject, instead of playing on its surface. His great defect, which will ever keep him at immense distance from their sphere, is his want of accurate erudition. I know, (for it is impossible for a reader of Mr. Coleridge not to know) that his knowledge is various and extensive: he is considerably versed in languages, and well read in all the best authors: yet there is scarcely one subject (except poetical criticism) among the many on which in his last publication, he ventures to dogmatize of which he has more than the merest elementary knowledge. He pretends to expose the vulgar errors respecting taxation, and yet his recourse to the vulgar expedient of begging all the principles on which he builds the refutation of them. He objects, properly enough, to Paley's doctrine of General Consequences, and, after a great deal of blundering, mixed, however, with much truth, comes as well as I can understand him, precisely to the same conclusion. He ridicules, very skilfully, the philosophy of the Oeconomists, who talk of the state, and of society, as if it were a mystical something, and not merely an aggregate of particular individuals: yet in the same essay, he expends many pages to prove that the happiness of states is governed by rules separate from those of ordinary life, and that their morality stands on another basis. The source of all these contradictions, is vanity, which leads him to go out of his sphere to play the fool, when, within it, he might shine with the lustre of a first-rate genius. He is like Hobbes, or Berkely, the first of whom, tried to injure his own well-earned fame, by translating Homer; and the latter, came off with disgrace and sore defeat, for presuming to contend with Newton, on a subject of which he knew not the first principles. Let him cease to waste his powers on such topics, and write more sonnets and more tragedies: if he must be metaphysical, let it be in verse and not in prose: and, if his next tragedy shall contain as much fanciful description, and impassioned sentiment as his "Remorse," he will easily be forgiven, though the hero of it should be Kant himself, and should talk nothing but Kantism, from the first act to the last.

I cannot conclude this article without alluding to the very unjustifiable severity with which this gentleman has been treated for certain changes in his opinions. It seems that Mr. Coleridge, at forty, is not the same ignorant indiscriminating enthusiast which he was at twenty: he has grown wiser and recanted his errors: and for this reason he is to be assailed as a apostate and a hypocrite. The cruelty of such invective is only equalled by its absurdity: for its principle is this: all wisdom is intuitive, and he only is an honest man whose understanding is as stagnant and as dull as the waters of Lethe. True it is, that the elements of morality are not only unalterable, but are intelligible even to a child. "Murder is execrable, and tyranny only fit for demons." These are principles which the boy of sixteen understands as well as the grey-beard of sixty: but does he equally understand the right mode of applying these rules to every particular case? Would he be equally fit to sit as a Judge, or to organize a Reformation? When the French Revolution broke out, Mr. Coleridge, like every youth of ardent temperament, was, as he ought to have been, enchanted at the promise then given, that liberty was to be erected on the ruins of a corrupt and intolerable tyranny. That promise was made by men of high character: philosophers, who had devoted all their studies to the improvement of their country, and whose motives were scarcely impeached by their bitterest enemies. No wonder that the young became enthusiastic, when even the old and the wise were seduced by such appearances. The French philosophers, however, did not keep their promise because they could not: they destroyed abuses, but they had not the skill to substitute any systems in their room: admirable theorists, they were mere children in practice: so they stood still or vacillated, and wasted the hopes of the impatient nation, till their formidable rivals, who had learned from these very men to prate of philosophy, but who owned no influence but self-interest, marched irresistibly to power over the dead bodies of their poor honest-hearted tutors. Then followed all those evils which will be a standing illustration of the dangers of revolution till the end of the world. Now, let me ask any man, who takes a survey of all those circumstances, whether he cannot easily forgive the writer who having been carried to a blind excess of admiration at the outset of these events, should at last never be able to allude to them without shrinking and dismay. But it seems that Mr. Coleridge has rendered the motive of his conversion questionable: he has consented to wear a badge, to receive a pension from the Government. — I do not know whether this be the case: if it is, I am sorry for it: for, though in my mind, it does not detract one jot from the honesty of Mr. Coleridge, yet it necessarily diminishes his dignity as a teacher of political truth. It was not worth his while for a scanty pittance, which can hardly add a vegetable to his daily board, to compromise the independence of his character: it was a shameful sacrifice to his indolence, and is altogether a weakness, which, however consonant with the feebleness of Mr. Southey's mind, was quite below the energy which distinguishes Mr. Coleridge's thinking. But the great and leading fault of his character is indolence: before its deadening influence the enthusiasm of the poet becomes torpid: nay, even his own ambition as a philosopher is checked: and he stops in mid career, though, from his own account, he could, with little exertion, enlighten mankind by a display of original and useful truths, which could not fail to increase the general welfare.